Last week I put on my boots and jeans and boarded one of two, large tour buses heading for a sweet potato farm in Simcoe, Ontario. You’d think the author of a book on fresh produce might know that sweet potatoes grew in Ontario – but she didn’t. And you’d think that the farm we were about to visit might be run-of-the mill, but it sure wasn’t.
Berlo’s Best Sweet Potatoes is the largest grower in Canada, with some 700 acres devoted to the adobe-coloured roots, annually harvesting a whopping 14 million pounds. Right smack in their busiest harvest of the year, head farmer, visionary and CEO Peter VanBerlo Sr. stood at the ready to tour us around his acreage, armed with an amplifier, microphone and 16 years of sweet potato farming experience.
Our bus had travelled from Mississauga to the sandy loam of Norfolk county, one of the most diverse agricultural areas in Ontario. Tall and lanky, VanBerlo stood roadside motioning us to park beside one of his sprawling sweet potato fields. Armed with smartphone cameras, pens and paper, our mostly-female group got off the bus slightly dazed and disoriented. City folk, we stumbled an unsteady course through the field, negotiating our way over burrowed trenches and uprooted debris.
Suddenly VanBerlo shouted “Look there!” and pointed frantically at one of his custom engineered digger/harvesters off in the distance. It looked like a travelling assembly line, crowded with over a dozen seasonal workers busily sorting, shaking and tossing an incoming sea of the pinky-red sweet potatoes.
“These workers have been with me for 29 years,”said a satisfied VanBerlo. He paused politely as we let out a collective sigh of approval. “I must be doing something right.”
VanBerlo and his sons Nick and Peter Jr. have teamed up to take the kinks out of sweet potato farming. It’s a fussy, temperamental root wrapped in a thin, delicate skin that abhors the cold and demands gentle treatment. Traditional farm machinery wasn’t up to the job so the VanBerlos designed their own harvesters, and in 2006 established a state-of-the-art facility.
After our romp through the fields, VanBerlo Sr. took us into this gargantuan packing, curing and storage facility to watch employees wash, sort, bag or box the spuds before undergoing their four to seven day curing process.
“Basically we fool these potatoes into thinking it’s summer and time to get growing again,” explained VanBerlo with a twinkle in his eye. “We put them in a hot, humid 85 degree (Fahrenheit) room and their skins thicken and the starches convert into sugars.” Once fully cured, sweet potatoes are stored for up to three months in his computer-controlled facilities that automatically shut off the curing process and turn on cold storage in well-ventilated, 55 degree F rooms that are stacked high with crates from ground to ceiling. It’s massive.
Curing not only makes sweet potatoes taste better, but it helps promote longer storage. Van Berlo says his sweet potatoes can store for 12 months but once they’re moved out of storage, shelf-life is reduced to a couple of weeks.
At home, store your sweet spuds in a dark, cool cupboard rather than the fridge. In fact, give them more TLC than you might confer on regular potatoes for if sweet potatoes are dropped or punched around, their sweet interiors will quickly bruise and decay.
When asked about the sweet potato-yam confusion among produce retailers, VanBerlo just laughed and said, “If Sobeys asks for yams, I give ’em yams.” But that’s an inside joke between all of us sweet potato experts. (Real yams don’t grow in North America and look very different: they are white-fleshed, long starch tubers with rough scaly skins.)
Berlo’s Best sweet potato farm bears testimony to the resilience and innovation of Simcoe’s former tobacco farmers. It’s a one-stop-shop for growing, harvesting and packaging a capricious root from the American south.
Now put that in your pipe and smoke it.
Sweet potato puree with pecans served at Bonnie Health Estate
Sweet potato soup with ginger and cinnamon
Fresh ginger is the magic of this soup. Peel it and grate with a microplane for best results. If you’ve got a spice grinder, cinnamon is always at its peak when freshly ground.
2 tbsp vegetable oil
1 onion, chopped
2 tsp finely grated fresh ginger
4 cups low-sodium chicken stock
3 lbs (1.5 kg) medium sweet potatoes (about 5), peeled and cut into half-inch (1 cm) dice
1 tsp ground cinnamon
1 1/2 tsp salt
Freshly ground pepper, to taste
1 cup milk or cream
In a large pot, heat oil and cook the chopped onion at medium low for 5 minutes or until soft and fragrant. Add ginger and cook for 30 seconds. Add stock, sweet potatoes, cinnamon, salt and pepper. Bring to a boil then reduce to a simmer and cook, covered, for 15 minutes or until the potatoes are tender. Remove soup from heat and allow to cool. Use a handheld immersion blender or puree in batches in a blender or food processor. Gently reheat and whisk in milk.
© 2015 Madeleine Greey